‘Abeginning is a very delicate time,’ we are told in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965), and again in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation. None of that ‘a long time ago’ stuff, especially since we’re not talking about the past. The action takes place in the first months of the year 10191. The year is also mentioned in Denis Villeneuve’s new version, which echoes Lynch’s visual style, or at least the visual tendencies of the earlier film: vast buildings, every meeting place a parade ground; flying machines that look like overgrown zeppelins; uniforms and marching that recall the Russian empire or the films of Leni Riefenstahl; battles composed of men crashing into each other, as in the Middle Ages or Chimes at Midnight.
Villeneuve’s film, for which he wrote the screenplay with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, only takes us a little more than halfway into the narrative of Herbert’s first Dune novel (there were five more). Lynch advanced a bit further. Completing or at least complicating the picture is the adaptation that Alejandro Jodorowsky never made, starring Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles, which was to last twelve hours and cover the action of the whole first novel. This doomed project became the subject of a remarkable 2013 documentary by Frank Pavich.
Villeneuve’s Dune, identified as Part One, ends with Paul Atreides, not yet known as Muad’dib, having been accepted as a member of a group called the Fremen, native inhabitants of the planet Arrakis. They are still part of the Padishah Empire, but there are hopes for independence in the future, especially now they have Paul’s help. His father, Duke Leto Atreides, has been appointed a sort of viceroy of Arrakis, and he and his officers reveal liberal tendencies, admiring the Fremen for their ability to survive on a planet that is all sand, just one dune after another. They are also good at dealing with the sandworms, vast creatures that look like terrestrial equivalents of the imperial aircraft and which play the role (and have the appetite) of dragons in other fantasy worlds. There is no water on Arrakis, except what’s made by sweating and other activities, but there is something called ‘spice’ or ‘the mélange’, which extends human abilities in all kinds of ways, and can be mined and sold. Needless to say, the political plot soon thickens into conspiracy.
Villeneuve’s film is more of a homage to Lynch than a remake or correction, but there are also serious differences which might be reflected in the two films’ varying receptions. According to Dennis Lim’s book on Lynch, Dune was his most successful box-office achievement, making $30 million. The snag was that it cost $40 million. Villeneuve compares well, and they’ve only just started counting: his film has made $374 million on a budget of $165 million. To put it bluntly – rather too bluntly – Villeneuve is stately where Lynch is awkward. In his defence, Lynch may have been trying to prove to Hollywood that he could be as crude as it needed him to be. After all, he had turned down a chance to direct the third Star Wars movie in order to have his own opportunity in space. We should also perhaps make an allowance for the genre in its earlier days. In serious science fiction nothing significant ever happened without portentous comment, and when nothing was happening the comments were even more portentous.
Lynch’s Dune is a better film than its first critics thought, but it is full of solemn statements of the obvious. A comparison between his villain, played by Kenneth McMillan, and Villeneuve’s, played by Stellan Skarsgård, is instructive. The latter is unctuous and nasty but well within the ordinary stylistic range of villainy. The former is just repellent, his fat face oozing with sores and his lovingly directed overacting so extreme that he becomes the reverse of scary. The difference between the heroes, the two versions of Paul Atreides, is less stark. The earlier performance is by Kyle MacLachlan in the days before Twin Peaks (Dune was his first movie). He is fresh, smart, amiable, ready to take on a difficult world, and quite plausible at the end as the sort of fascist that good guys often become in movies about empires. Timothée Chalamet, by contrast, is a child rather than a young grown-up, and he remains a child, intelligent but frail. When he wins a crucial knife fight we know this is thanks to some close contact with the wizardly spice, or some secret teaching by his mother, Lady Jessica, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Both films are driven by a benign Oedipal romance. The father dies and the son gets to hang out with his mum, but there is no aggression or lust.
Jessica belongs to a sisterhood called the Bene Gesserit, whose members have remarkable psychic powers, including an ability to assume a ‘voice’ that compels other people to do things against their will without the least recourse to torture. They can also eavesdrop magically, a skill comically revealed at the beginning of the Lynch movie when the reverend mother of the organisation, played by Silvana Mangano, is kicked out of an important meeting. (The precise instruction is to ‘get rid of that witch’.) She simply goes to another part of the palace and listens as if she had never left. It’s a pleasure to see Charlotte Rampling in this role in the new film, although ‘see’ is not quite the word. We hear her through a veil that is more like a mask, but we could not mistake her for anyone else. She brings a special relish to her first task, which is to torture (after all) our hero to make sure he is a hero. He may in fact be the Messiah, but that belongs to a later part of the story.
Issues of gender are quite confused in all the versions of the Dune story. The women understand much better than the men what’s going on, since they are less preoccupied with marching and ceremonies and thuggery; it is the Bene Gesserit that is planning for the arrival of the Messiah and the final moral uplift of the world. But the Messiah has to be a man, and he has to come later. Jessica is severely rebuked by the order for giving birth to a boy just because she loved his father and he wanted a son. She was supposed to have had a girl who would grow up to be the Messiah’s mother. The implication is that in this universe one chooses the sex of one’s child as a matter of course.
The same mixture of agency and submission is apparent in the film’s view of empire: it can be improved but no one is going to give it up. Asked about this implicit endorsement, Villeneuve said that his film was ‘not a celebration of a saviour. It’s a criticism of the idea of a saviour, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe.’ It’s hard to detect this criticism in the film, but it does invite reflection, and only its stateliness gets in the way. Given its tangle of politics and morality, I found myself thinking of speculative parallels, for instance a movement for independence that would in fact have been designed to perpetuate British rule. I imagine, though, that Frank Herbert was thinking of oil and the Middle East, something closer to the sand.